'We're far from understanding exam anxiety'

The relationship between mental health and high-stakes exams needs serious investigation, says Ofqual chair Roger Taylor

Roger Taylor

The link between exam pressure and mental health problems needs further investigation, says Ofqual chair

We’re only a few weeks into 2019, but teachers and students are beginning to ramp up their preparations for GCSE and A-level exams this summer. We are already preparing, as we do every year, to monitor the work of exam boards to maintain standards and ensure a level playing field for all students.

Based on experience, we expect to see comments this summer that the new exams are either too easy or too hard, depending on the author. This sort of debate can be unsettling for students already feeling pressure.

Securing fair outcomes for students through a significant period of exam reform has been important for young people and the education system. Our approach – which uses statistics and senior examiner judgement – is based on decades of best practice in this country and around the world. It recognises a need to be flexible during times of change, so that it’s no easier, or harder, to get a particular grade in one year or another, or with one exam board than another.

New 9 to 1 GCSEs have been designed to cater for the same ability range of students and while broadly the same proportion of students will get a grade 4 or above as achieved grade C or above in each subject, fewer will achieve the very top grade, 9.

Exam anxiety and mental health

Senior examiners judge the quality of work at certain grade boundary points, and their expertise means the grades stand up to scrutiny. Despite stories to the contrary, this approach allows for individual students who perform better than expected to do well and not be held back by statistical predictions. It also protects students from losing out unfairly because they are the first to take a new exam.


Every time an exam is reformed, there is a slight dip in performance in the first year or so because teachers and students are less familiar with the new test. This dip does not reflect any change in the standard the students have achieved and it would be wrong to set grades at a level that denied them qualifications they have earned. This is not "saving" students or lowering standards – it is giving students the right grades. This unnecessary and negative debate can have a real and demoralising effect on students and teachers.

The other area of public debate is exam anxiety and concern that it is affecting the mental health of young people. This debate is important at a time of rising rates of suicide and self-harm among teenagers. Understanding the causes requires serious inquiry. It is a complex problem affecting many countries – for example, the US has seen similar rising rates of teenage suicide over the past decade. Global changes such as social media, economic uncertainty and cultural division have all been cited as causes alongside more local factors such as changes in exams. Understanding of the issue is far from complete. But every organisation that plays a role in the life of teenagers must take seriously its responsibilities.

Many schools and colleges offer excellent support to those who need extra help. For our part, later this spring, we will be publishing additional advice, underpinned by extensive research and led by leading academics and specialists in the field, around how to identify and manage test anxiety, to help teachers and students prepare for the summer exams.

So, to all those students taking their exams this summer, and the parents and teachers supporting them, I want to send a message – work hard and do your best, and be confident that you will get the grades your performance deserves.

Roger Taylor is the chair of Ofqual

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Roger Taylor

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